Asia-Pacific

Australian mining company facing nuclear waste investigation in Malaysia

Malaysian protesters oppose the Australian mining company Lynas' processing plant in 2012. Source: EPA

Malaysia’s new government is set to scrutinise Lynas Corporation’s rare earths processing plant on its east coast, as the region cracks-down on e-waste.

Malaysia’s new government is set to establish a wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry to probe environmental concerns surrounding Australian mining company Lynas Corporation’s processing of rare earths in the country.

The Australian company has been processing rare earths - a type of metal used in high-tech products including computers and electric cars - in Malaysia since the start of 2013.

The Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) on the east coast of Malaysia has long been the focus of residents and environmental protesters who are concerned about the management of low-level nuclear waste generated during processing.

Lynas plant in east Malaysia.
Lynas plant in east Malaysia.

The move comes amidst a broader regional crackdown on environmental waste, as neighbours Thailand last week announced they would ban the importing of e-waste, of which rare earth metals are commonly abstracted from. 

The Thai government were responding to environmental concerns after the country had become an alternative home for huge quantities of global e-waste following China's decision to ban imports last year. 

The rare earths are dug up in Australia by Western-Australian based Lynas and shipped to markets around the world including China, after processing in Malaysia.

Environmental activists have been buoyed by the election of a new government in Malaysia in May, with the new administration promising to hold multiple inquiries into various aspects of Lynas Corporation’s operations.

Its share price plummeted in May when Malaysia’s ruling Barisan National coalition suffered a shock defeated at the polls and the share price is yet to fully recover to its early May position.

The company released a statement at the time saying they looked forward to working with the new government and dismissing environmental concerns.

Activists accused the previous government of ignoring environmental concerns surrounding the processing plant, while those who protested against the development were arrested and charged by Malaysian authorities.

The company had previously been benefiting from increasing global demand for rare earths metals, as well as global production shortages after a Chinese government crackdown on unscrupulous earth miners.

Lynas has consistently defended its waste management at the processing centre, saying radioactive run-off is diluted to safe levels before being turned into other by-products, such as soil fertiliser.

Wong Tack, an environmental activist and MP in the new Malaysian government, said two inquiries into Lynas, one parliamentary and one in the executive branch, would begin in the “very near future”.

“The Pakatan Harapan government was voted in by an overwhelming mandate for reform. One of its manifesto promises is to balance economic growth and environmental well-being,” he told SBS News.

Mr Tack also dismissed concerns that tougher regulations or actions against Lynas would deter foreign investment in Malaysia, saying all actions will be in accordance to the rule of law and respect international norms.

“Malaysia as a sovereign state will strive to adhere to these obligations and at the same time protect its policy-making space and uphold the rights and aspirations of its people to environmentally-sound investments,” Mr Tack said.

In a statement to SBS News, Lynas Corporation said they had been operating safely in Malaysia for more than five years in compliance with all regulatory requirements. 

"Lynas welcomes the strong sense of optimism and progress that the new government has brought to Malaysia and accepts they are reviewing many areas of the Malaysian economy," the statement said. 

"As a lawful and transparent business, we hold ourselves to a high standard on all aspects of our business and will co-operate with the government with confidence in our performance," the statement added. 

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